JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — When South Africa's black miners went on strike last month, the Anglo American Corp. was the hardest hit company, and many here thought that the giant mining and industrial conglomerate got what it deserved for having supported the development of black labor unions over the years.
To end the three-week strike, Anglo American fired nearly 40,000 workers in massive dismissals that threatened to decimate the National Union of Mineworkers and even stunned the public in this country long accustomed to drastic action.
Widely considered to be one of South Africa's most progressive employers, Anglo American suddenly found itself denounced by the union as "a treacherous, cowardly and ruthless organization" that used "fascist methods to destroy workers' lives."
But as they assess the impact, Anglo American executives, while they are unhappy that the strike continued for so long and cost so much, now say that perhaps it was not such a bad thing.
Showed Power of Unions
"I really, profoundly believe that the strike was part of a transition towards a modern, non-racial democracy," said Bobby Godsell, Anglo American's industrial relations chief. "People can't have power unless they can use it, and you only know that they have it when they do use it."
By shutting down about a third of South Africa's gold and coal mines, the country's most important industry, the strike showed black workers that their unions do have real power, Godsell argues, and this should encourage the still-youthful union movement as well as contribute to the development of a democracy in which the black majority fully participates.
"For people who have no power, it is very hard to conceive of both the opportunities and the constraints of power," Godsell said, arguing that, just as the strike made the mine workers realize the extent and the limitations of their power over the mining companies, the union movement as a whole should bring blacks "an important sense of realism" about what it will take to end apartheid.
"To some extent, the history of opposition to apartheid is captured in the image of people marching around Jericho and blowing their horns," Godsell continued. "The problem is that the walls have not yet fallen down, and the mere denunciation of apartheid is not going to end it. . . . Apartheid was built brick by brick, and it actually has to be abolished brick by brick."
South Africa's young but rapidly growing black unions "understand that to have power you have to have membership, to have membership you have to have something to offer," Godsell said. "You have to address progress today as well as paradise tomorrow; you have to have a realistic assessment of the powers of your opponent; you have to develop space in which to operate, and you have to engage in a strategy with a realistic chance of success. I welcome the unions' involvement in politics, and I believe that they are going to play a very constructive role in the process of change."
But when the mine workers went on strike last month in what was as much a demonstration of strength as a demand for higher wages, many South Africans savored the irony of a black union exercising its new power against Anglo American.
"A lot of people have said, 'Well, you guys wanted unions, you've got them now, and I'm sure that you're sorry,' " Godsell said in an interview. "I'm afraid that I am completely unrepentant. I'm neither surprised at the strike, nor am I sorry that we encouraged the development of black trade unions.
"Democracy is a clumsy, costly, conflict-ridden way of running a society, but the alternative is not terribly attractive. . . . We knew we would be dealing with tough adversaries, but we believed that through bargaining and through the creation of this institution, we could channel conflict in a way that would be to the mutual benefit of ourselves, our workers and society."
The cost that Anglo American has paid in putting this liberal philosophy into practice has been high--lost revenues from the strike alone will run into tens of millions of dollars--but the company's resolve appears undiminished by the strike or the criticism of its policies.
"If we don't stand for improvements in the societies where we work, then we are just after short-term profits," Zach de Beer, an executive director of Anglo American, said in an interview. "It's no good just creaming it, grabbing the profits and letting society go to hell. It is not morally justifiable, and it is not good business."
Like other South African companies, Anglo American, the largest of the country's big mining and manufacturing conglomerates, is caught up in the nation's accelerating political, economic and social transformation and, like others, it is trying to shape the changes to ensure its own survival.